Television Basics: Episode 3 – Us v. Them
Previously, on Television Basics: We explored the concept of the “Television Code” and how it helped make the TV environs safer for advertisers. We examined the Mass Marketing of television and the early programs designed to encourage people to buy a set. And we looked at these early programs to examine just how the networks positioned themselves to gain viewers into the 1950s. This time, we’ll exit the Eisenhower years, and head towards a new, immensely larger and crazier world, and beyond.
As mentioned, the event that gave TV a high profile was the 1948 World Series, so maybe this issue was built into the concept of the medium, just like commercials had been: television has focused on competition from the very beginning.
After the Korean War ended, in 1953-4 Senator Joe McCarthy of Wisconsin conducted a series of interviews as hearings that questioned and/or accused dozens of people of Communist dealings or leanings in the face of a country that seemed to be threatened and frightened by the concept. This was the first element in the new reality that made everyone need a set. You couldn’t see the faces of these Communist sympathizers through the radio and you couldn’t hear their voices from a newspaper! Television was “exposing” elements to the nation that weren’t even considered just a few months prior, and for your security, you better have a set.
Communism was becoming a very important element to observe for Americans as the 1950s progressed and it was launched to a brand new level on October 4, 1957. On that date, the USSR sent the very first man-made object into orbit. Known as Sputnik, the craft circled the globe, sending back radio signals to Russia and suddenly they could do something the United States could not. This was the beginning of the Space Age, and it changed how people felt about their safety. If Moscow could send up a craft that could fly right over the USA, multiple times at a go, could they spy on us? Could they bomb us? The world had changed, and for America, the change was scary.
Television, always ready to exploit a concept, started producing more and more programs with a science fiction and/or science fact theme, especially as it related to space travel. But at the same time, US citizens were looking for meaning from a world that seemed more and more confusing.
News became a big story through this era, as TV worked to get some credibility with their print media journalists. And the most obvious news story was that the perfect world that Television attempted to portray, the “Leave It To Beaver” or “Ozzie and Harriet” life, was very far from the world on the opposite side of our screens.
The “Us v. Them” elements came up often, whether it was the Brown v. The Board of Education of Topeka, KS decision in 1954, the first US Presidential Debates televised to the nation with Richard Nixon, the incumbent Vice President and Senator John F. Kennedy in 1960 or that ever dizzying Space Race as everyone on the planet seemed to be turning their attention towards the moon as the 1960s hit their stride, there was a lot of opposition starting to happen and as the technology changed, permitting cameras to travel more easily, video stories began to reach our screens.
This also began to play up the “Generation Gap,” as young teens started finding programming that they liked, such as Dick Clark’s “American Bandstand,” got going, and gave the younger set lots of products to buy and set the choices for consumerism in motion.
But news took center stage when President Kennedy was assassinated, then when his accused killer, Lee Harvey Oswald was shot live on camera by Jack Ruby, the first ever snuff film in TV history. Suddenly news became more than just a filler for the final 15 minutes of the network broadcast day. Big things were starting to happen.
As more and more troops were sent to Vietnam to help prevent the spread of Communism, telejournalists went along to show exactly what was happening, every step of the way. Meanwhile, the fight for racial equality created a different kind of war right here at home, as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X both became iconic figures in their approaches toward making the USA equal for all.
Television was, in fact, working against itself through this era. As they covered the triumphs of the US Space Program, well on its way to the moon, and the horrors and tragedies of the people related to our two “wars,” entertainment programming not only didn’t deal with it; it completely ignored it! And more, many programs were filled with magic or fantasy themes throughout this entire era, taking television even further away from the truth of these stories.
The programs of the 1960s featured genies, witches, talking horses, not one but two families of monsterish types, but also a bunch of spy and espionage programs clearly borne from the ever nagging “Cold War” issues. But even these shows were removed enough to be “entertaining” and more importantly safe for the sponsors to display their wares. As Detroit and Watts burned and as the body count continued to mount, coming out of Saigon, it was crucial for television to remain carefree: get stranded on an island with seven castaways or greet a man from mars who just happened to crash land right near Los Angeles. It was all designed to divert, and to keep viewers focused on what really mattered: the commercials.
Finally, on the “us/them” theme, television discovered a crucial rule during this era: If the concept of a program works, you can reverse that concept and it, too, will work. “The Beverly Hillbillies” was a story ‘bout a man named Jed and his family, a backward, backwoods group if ever there was one, who struck it rich and moved to the city that is synonymous with ritzy. The program became the phenomenon of the decade. But then Paul Henning got the brilliant idea to switch the concept and have a jaded New York lawyer and his socialite wife move from their Park Avenue high rise and to the region from which the Jed Clampetts’ hailed! “Green Acres” was born and it too was a big success.
Your assignment this time is to consider what might have happened if television has at least attempted to incorporate the events of the day into the storylines of the entertainment programs that aired. Could this have helped or would it have simply spoiled what would become beloved reruns for the next generation to watch after school?
Next time, 1968 and television finally steps toward social change.